History of Rockwood Tennessee

Rockwood is tucked neatly between the edge of the Cumberland Plateau and the shores of Watts Bar Lake. It is the westernmost town in Roane County. It owes its existence to a joint venture between a former Union General and a former Confederate Captain.

In 1794, the land upon which the City of Rockwood is now located was owned by the Indians. A territorial legislature was convened at Knoxville that year and passed an act which provided that a wagon road was to be built from South West Point (now Kingston) to the settlements in the Cumberland (now Nashville). The Cherokees claimed the territory through which this road must pass and felt the white man had no right to cross their lands. When the first ferry crossed the Clinch River near South West Point, Indians were standing on the west bank of the river and demanded toll be paid before the boat could land.

This road was the cause of numerous conflicts. In 1799, the General Assembly of Tennessee recognized the correctness of the Indians’ position and passed an “act respecting the road as stipulated by the Treaty of the Holston” and hostilities ceased. The new road west “began at the old fort where Thomas Norris Clark established a ferry, passed through the valley of Post Oak Springs and ascended the mountain at a low gap…”

“Home-seekers poured in from the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even New England. They came with North Carolina land grants, either earned in service or purchased from veterans or speculators. The Walton Road was congested with “movers” during the summer and autumn months – great top-heavy wagons piled high with household goods, and crude sledges with runners of hickory or oak; befrilled gentlemen astride blooded horses, rawboned farmers on hairy plownags, peddlers and merchants with their trains of donkeys, immigrants too poor to afford horse or ox, plodding through the dust clouds with their meager belongings and children on their backs – all moving west toward the promise of land in Tennessee.” (Tennessee, A Guide to the State, page 48).

The land at the foot of the Cumberland Mountain where Rockwood was later built was part of Grant No. 209 issued to Stockley Donaldson and James Wood Lackey from the state of North Carolina. Although many claims were being made by the white man, the Cherokee did not sign over title to their land until October 25, 1805, in the Treaty of Tellico. It was at this time, Chief Tullentusky was allowed to hold a mile square reserve on land which included what is now known as Brick Yard Springs in Rockwood. About fifteen years later the old Chief leased this reserve and moved to Missouri where he died.

By 1812, Hugh Dunlap owned an interest in the original Donaldson-Lackey grant and lived on a 640-acre tract which included a part of what is now the City of Rockwood. His house stood near the present location of the Rockwood Times building. In 1817, Hugh Dunlap sold all his interest in the original grant to Thomas Brown and John McCampbell.

The War Between the States brought many changes in the lives of persons who lived in this area. Many left never to return and others came with the Union Army to catch their first glimpse of the beautiful streams and the heavily foliated ridges of East Tennessee. The conflict brought General John T. Wilder, one of the most noted brigade commanders in the Union Army, who recognized that there was an area with great possibilities for industrial development. He saw that here was the Tennessee River upon which barges could be floated for shipping, the land held great amounts of iron ore, and nearby ridges contained valuable deposits of coal. He believed that here was the ideal location to build the first furnace south of the Ohio to use mineral coal for the production of iron.

In September 1865, General John Wilder and a friend, Captain Hiram S. Chamberlain of Knox County, purchased 728 acres of land from John W. Brown and the heirs of Joseph Kimbrough. Three years later, on March 21, 1868, there arrived at Kimbrough’s Landing (Rockwood Landing), a shipment of material to build the first furnace for what proved to be a business venture that would last 100 years.

On March 11, 1868, a steamer towed a barge to the river landing bearing a “Blandy” saw mill. Capt W.E. McElwee was acting as agent for Gen. Wilder and had the authority to sign a receipt for the saw mill so the deliverer could get his pay. He started to head the receipt “Bells” for the name of the post office. Just as he started to write, he was handed a letter stating that Mr. W.O. Rockwood has been elected president of the newly formed Roane Iron Company and the place would be named for him.

The furnace was completed and the first cast made on December 8, 1868, a little over eight months from the time the first parts arrived at Kimbrough’s Landing. At that time only one steamer, the Cherokee, made one trip a week when the water was high enough.

Within eighteen months, many people from Wales, England, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and other distant places came to Rockwood to work in the mines and at the furnace. It became necessary to build additional houses for employees and “Miner’s Square” was developed. (Rockwood High School and the adjoining recreational area is the location where the houses were built.) The Roane Iron Company, mindful of their people, erected a community church and school. In 1875, Rockwood had the only two public schools in the county.

Up to 1880, the town of Rockwood only extended down to Lenoir Street. When the Cincinnati Southern Railroad was nearing completion, the part of town known as New Rockwood was laid out. The street nearest the railroad was named Front Street, and the construction of new buildings began. The first house to be built was a hotel and then the “Old Kentucky Saloon” was erected.

The city of Rockwood was incorporated as “New” Rockwood and “Old” Rockwood. Within four years after the new town was incorporated, new buildings mostly filled the block between Wilder Street and Chamberlain Street on Rockwood Avenue. In July 1894, a devastating fire swept away most everything on the south side of the street. A few months later, another fire burned most everything on the north side of the street.

The Tennessee Central Railroad was completed in 1900 and made available the timber and mineral resources of the Cumberland Plateau as well as adding another convenient method of shipping manufactured products from Rockwood. With the dawn of the twentieth century, Rockwood entered upon a period of growth in wealth, population and importance exceeding even the first three eventful decades of the city’s history. In a special referendum election held in 1903, a new city charter was adopted barring saloons. Civic and cultural organizations were formed. The old mining camp town, crude and rough and wholly centered around one industry, was changing into a well developed community of diversified industries, with varied interests and activities. Some of this diversified industrial base was the Rockwood Hosiery Mill and the Rockwood Stove Works, and in 1917, the Chamberlain Memorial Hospital.

Rockwood’s early boom came to an end with the Great Depression. The doors of the Roane Iron Company closed. Rockwood continued to struggle throughout the 1930s until World War II and New Deal programs created a demand for able-bodied men and women again. Rockwood continues to weather ups and downs but is looking forward to a bright future.

(This was taken from the “Historical Review” published during Rockwood’s Centennial Year. Copies of this complete history with many photographs is now available to download from the links below!)

Click the image below to download Part 1 of the "Historical Review 1868-1968 Part 1"

Click the image below to download Part 2 of the "Historical Review 1868-1968 Part 2"